Sustainable Travel… Is it possible to be both an environmentally responsible world traveler? Can we explore the world without causing harm to the planet and its cultures? The answer lies in the concept of responsible tourism, which seeks to strike a balance between fulfilling our travel desires and safeguarding the environment and culture for future generations. In this article, we’ll delve into the essence of responsible tourism, its significance, and discover changes we can make to travel in a more eco-friendly way.
I love travel and I love nature, so I’ve always tried to travel ‘green’. But years ago I learned what responsible travel really is. While staying at an eco-resort, I looked for gifts to bring home. The shop’s manager kept suggesting baskets made by the local people, but I chose bracelets (easier to pack). I remember her displeasure but didn’t really understand until we were leaving the country and I saw these same bracelets in every shop in the airport. Those bracelets were imported just for the tourists. My purchase hadn’t supported the local community at all. How was this wildlife reserve to be sustained if the community didn’t profit from tourism?
Travel will always have an impact on a destination.
Many people ask if it’d be better if we all just stayed home and reduced the carbon emissions from travel? Though this seems logical, in fact tourism is one of the most significant incentives towards preserving the natural and cultural treasures of the world. Without the travel industry most of the nature reserves throughout the world would have been converted to farmland.
The impact of travel on destinations cannot be denied, but whether this impact is beneficial or detrimental depends on how we travel. Irresponsible tourism can damage fragile ecosystems, exploit local communities, and lead to cultural dilution. However, when done responsibly, tourism can bring economic benefits to an area, improve the standard of living for locals, and ensure the protection of natural and cultural treasures.
Examples of sustainable tourism show promise in many countries around the world. In these countries, the tourist industry has committed to high standards of environmental development, education, and coordination with the local communities. And the results have been remarkable. Since Costa Rica began its sustainable development programs, unemployment has fallen below 10%, and the quality of life in the country has risen to among the best in the world.
What is Responsible and Sustainable Tourism?
Responsible tourism definition in simple words
For our purposes, responsible tourism means travel that is a positive experience for both the tourist and the local community. Responsible tourists plan their travel (and behave on the trip) to support sustainability.
Sustainability occurs when three factors – Social justice, Environmental protection, and Economic viability – are in balance. These factors are often called the three pillars of sustainability. Tourism that is sustainable protects the natural environments and the cultural heritage, addresses climate change, minimizes plastics and waste, AND expands economic development in the area communities. Responsible tourism doesn’t make life more difficult for the local community.
Getting the Tourist to Travel Responsibly
In most cases people travel to enjoy a different part of the world. Whether they are looking for a pristine beach or anticipating walking in ancient ruins, the tourist has placed a value on their chosen destination. Recent studies reveal that a vast majority of people want to be more responsible in their travel. They are increasingly conscious of the potential harm caused by over-tourism and the environmental impact of carbon emissions from travel. While the desire to travel more eco-friendly is strong, many travelers are challenged to do it.
According to a survey conducted by Booking.com survey the primary concern regarding eco-friendly travel was the perceived cost. 42% of the respondents said that the added expenses associated with sustainable travel were keeping them from adopting green travel practices.
Following closely behind was the lack of knowledge about sustainable tourism practices. Nearly a third of respondents shared their desire to travel in a more responsible way but felt they lacked the necessary know-how to do so.
Let’s take advantage of people’s desire to travel responsibly and share practical ideas on how sustainable options can be both easy and budget-friendly! Learning to travel responsibly is just the beginning. Once we’ve made positive changes to our own journeys, we need to share the experience with others. Help them to see that it’s easy and rewarding to travel in an environmentally friendly way. Together we can be a positive force in making travel more sustainable.
Easy Eco-Friendly Travel Tips
It can be overwhelming to look at the challenges of our world and try to figure out how we can address them. We can’t ‘fix’ things ourselves, but if we work on our own ‘little bit of good’, together we will make a positive impact. This wisdom from Reverend Tutu is as relevant to traveling as to everything else.
Start where you are. Make a small change in your travel style today, and, when you’re ready or can afford it, make a bigger change later. Every step towards being a responsible tourist helps.
Here are our sustainable travel tips, beginning with the easy, inexpensive, and often FREE (🐸) things you can do:
Sustainable Travel Tips: Baby Steps
Eliminate/reduce single-use plastics
- Carry a reusable water bottle.
- Avoid plastic bags by bringing your own shopping sack from home. 🐸
- Remove packaging from products (& recycle) before leaving home. (Some locations don’t have resources for recycling.) 🐸
- Fill reusable containers with your preferred shampoo/conditioner from home. 🐸
- Say no to plastic straws and plastic bottles🐸
Bigger Steps: purchase (or assemble) a packable cutlery set. pack some reusable straws, eliminate items that contain microplastics from your travel AND home cleansing routine.
Save water with small changes
- Take shorter showers 🐸
- Turn off water when brushing teeth, or shaving 🐸
- Reuse bath towels and linens (put the Do Not Disturb sign on hotel doors)🐸
- Turn off lights when you leave a room. 🐸
- Raise (or lower) thermostat when possible. 🐸
- Carry out all your trash and dispose of it responsibly.
- Every pound of luggage adds to your airlines fuel expenditure and airplane emissions. National Geographic breaks down the cost of everything you carry on a flight here: The Hidden Costs of Flying
- Bigger Step: as items in your wardrobe and gear wear out, replace them with travel-friendly options made with sustainable fabric materials. Clothing that is lightweight and odor resistant will reduce the weight of your luggage and the necessity or doing laundry
Research potential activities
- Respect the local cultures and traditions- look for authentic opportunities to interact with locals. Dress respectfully and adhere to local customs. Remember, we’re guests in their home.
- Avoid unethical wildlife experiences– enjoy the area or observe wildlife at a respectful distance. Wildlife lovers, look for ethical travel experiences to enjoy, such as visiting the Sheldrick Wildlife Trust in Kenya, where orphaned elephants are raised before being reintroduced to the wild.
- Avoid tourist attractions that lack authenticity, such as factory tours disguised as selling opportunities. Often these activities do not represent the local culture.
Be camera smart
Don’t be photo obsessed. Travel is about more than the photos you post on social media. Take time to enjoy the surroundings with all your senses. But when you’re ready to take a picture:
- Be aware while taking pictures. Don’t stand in the middle of the street to take a picture. Don’t take selfies with wild animals.
- Be respectful. Don’t take selfies at somber memorial sites.
- Support local businesses at your destination to ensure tourism funds remain in the local community, rather than leak to outside economies.
- consult and hire local guides – check online for recommendations on local tour operators. We found a guide for a bird watching tour in Portugal by consulting a Lisbon birding club online.
- buy from regional artisans to support the local economies rather than hitting the tourist kiosks where the majority of items are imported.
- Eat local food
- Be aware of the food resources in the area you’re visiting and eat as the locals do. Importing food to suit a western diet is expensive and unsustainable. Visiting Argentina? have a steak! Visiting Bermuda? skip the steak and have seafood instead. Making conscientious choices to eat what is local and available is one of the best ways to travel green AND eat great food.
Respect the local people
It might seem like common sense but apparently many people forget their manners when they’re traveling. Responsible travelers don’t make the locals’ lives more difficult.
- Learn a few words in the local language.
- Always ask permission before taking a person’s picture. And ask if it’s OK to share to social media. Be particularly respectful of children’s images.
- Respect the locals’ privacy. Don’t use drones or other annoying technology in neighborhoods or on crowded streets.
- Learn about the region’s cultural norms before you leave home.
Basically follow the golden rule – ‘do unto others as you’d want them to do unto you.’ If you wouldn’t want someone filming social media reels on your front yard, don’t do it on theirs.
Sustainable Travel Tips: Big Steps
For a step-by-step guide to planning a responsible trip (and our case study); read How to Put Together a Sustainable Travel Plan
Deciding on your destination
- Avoid over-tourism spots, and areas where human rights are threatened. over-tourism puts a huge strain on the resources of an area, raises prices for locals, and sadly is often destroying that which brings travelers to the area. Research your destination to find better places to visit.
- Choose slow travel. Traveling slow means you stay in one destination for a long time. This is a great way to really learn about a country and its people, and it’s much more eco friendly as you’re not continuously moving and changing lodgings.
- Travel in the off-season if you are heading someplace suffering from over-tourism. Added bonus- this ensures income for local communities during what may be their lean times.
- Travel is an opportunity to ‘vote’ with your wallet. If you have reservations about a country’s policies or human rights issues, don’t go.
Choosing your lodging
- Skip the all-inclusive resorts. Staying (and paying) for the all-inclusive aspect of these resorts discourages the traveler from patronizing local restaurants and shops. There is also a significant amount of food waste at these resorts.
- When possible, stay at a locally owned hotel, rather than and international chain hotel, to bring benefits to the local economy. (Avoid tourism leakage)
- Investigate whether your lodging choice employs local people.
- Many hotels and lodges are committed to green practices, have signed the UNESCO Sustainable Travel Pledge, and certification programs acknowledge this. Check their website, and user reviews, before booking. Beware of greenwashing, where a business spends more on marketing their green practices than actually putting them into action.
- Book through a website like bookdifferent.com which monitors hotels for sustainable practices
Beware of greenwashing, where a business spends more on marketing their ‘green’ practices than actually putting them into action.
Choosing your transportation option
- Use MAPS as a mnemonic for sustainable transportation.
- M- minimize – can you reduce the distance? can you combine trips to save repeat journeys?
- A – active – can you reach your destination, or explore at your destination on foot or bicycle? 🐸
- P- public transport – can you take public transportation to, or around, your destination? Trains are the most sustainable form of long distance travel.
- S- share a ride. Not usually possible on a trip, so I’d change S to sustainable vehicle. Check to see if there are sustainable options like electric or hybrid cars if you’re renting a vehicle away from home.
Fly direct whenever possible
- The most airline fuel is used for takeoff and landing. Direct flights may be more expensive but spend a little bit extra to lower your carbon footprint and your travel time!
Cruising – Do or Don’t?
- Cruise ships are a Sustainable Travel challenge. They are destination, transportation, and lodging all in one, and can create enormous negative environmental impacts to the areas they traverse. But many people love to cruise, and others have accessibility challenges that make cruising the best option for them.
- Research cruise lines carefully before booking. Some small ship lines have invested in more efficient engineering and have adopted environmentally friendly practices to lessen the negative impact of their cruises.
- Add a few days to the beginning and or end of your cruise to support, and enjoy, the country.
- Patronize local restaurants and artisan shops on shore days.
- Consider booking a shore tour directly through a local agency. We’ve done this many times when we’ve traveled with friends (shared the expense). Added bonus is you can organize the tour to your interests and avoid the tourist traps. See our posts on Dubrovnik and Rhodes.
🐸 – free (or almost free!) and easy ways to be a responsible traveler.
Offset some of your travel by reducing your carbon footprint at home.
Responsible Tourism Examples – the good news
Several countries have made strong commitments to developing responsible tourism. Here are just a few responsible travel examples that illustrate areas of success:
- The Republic of Palau requires that visitors sign a pledge promising to respect and protect the island’s natural environment and culture. This pledge, signed on arrival, is addressed to the children of Palau.
- Sweden ranks #1 for sustainability by Euromonitor. Its programs for renewable energy and water sources are very successful.
- Slovenia has won many sustainability awards and was rated the best place for green travel in 2019. Ljubljana won a sustainable tourism award as part of the selection for the 2019 European Capital of Smart Tourism. We visited Slovenia several years ago and were impressed by how completely litter free it is!
- Costa Rica’s certification of sustainability process is being adopted around the world. Additionally, Costa Rica leads much of the world in reforestation.
- The United Republic of Tanzania has dedicated 38% of its land to conservation.
Care of the Earth is our most ancient and most worthy, and after all, our most pleasing responsibility – Wendell Berry
Additional Information on Responsible Tourism – definitions, and challenges
Ecotourism: Is sustainable travel the same as ecotourism?
The term eco-tourism was coined in the 1970s and is loosely defined as responsible travel in natural areas. Thus, eco travel is a type of sustainable travel, focused on nature. Promoting responsible eco travel in natural areas, e.g., safaris in Africa, or trekking in National Parks, is the most effective way to ensure that these natural areas, and the wildlife living there, will survive.
Not all lodging, tours, or experiences, labeled “eco” are in fact sustainable. Check credentials and practices before booking to avoid your visit having negative impacts.
Irresponsible tourism can happen anywhere but is on the rise with over-tourism. When travelers seeking the perfect Instagram shot climb on a historic fountain, or stray off the trail in a National Park, the fountain or the environment can be damaged. Likewise, when travelers leave trash or graffiti behind, the sought over destination is spoiled for the next visitor.
- Unintended irresponsible tourism happens when travelers take risks which can end up requiring their rescue. Check the weather before heading into the mountains, keep a respectful distance from wildlife, follow the guidance of rangers, etc.
Mass tourism is a somewhat negative term for affordable group travel. This includes inexpensive group tours, cruising, etc., anything that has opened the door of travel to most people. Before the onset of mass tourism, travel was a luxury of the wealthy. The grand tour was a fixture in ‘upper-class’ families, a coming-of-age adventure for (primarily) young men. But when companies like Thomas Cook began offering reasonably priced group tours, the world became accessible to ‘regular’ people. To my mind, this is a good thing, but it is not without its negative effects.
- on many mass tourism trips, the revenue stays with the operator. Travelers don’t stay at locally owned hotels, or frequent local restaurants. If you do choose to cruise, or book a group tour, make sure to have a meal or two at a local restaurant. You’ll have a more authentic experience and give back to the host communities.
Over-tourism happens when popular destinations gets more tourists than they can accommodate sustainably. The experience is detrimental to the tourist and the destination. The tourist can’t enjoy the view of St. Mark’s Basilica in Venice with a hundred selfie-sticks in the way. And the people of Venice can’t go about their regular life with so many people jamming their pathways, and local shops turned into tourist traps. This is a major issue for the city. In fact, over-tourism often leads to the locals being displaced from their communities due to rising costs of rent, essentials, and utilities.
- over-tourism often centers the traveler on the big attractions while missing the genuine city they’re visiting. For example, visitors to NYC crowd Times Square and miss the fascinating neighborhoods of the city. They come away feeling that NYC was just tall buildings and neon lights, rather than a living city.
Regenerative Travel – the sustainable future of travel?
With all of us doing our part to travel in a responsible way, the tourism industry can begin to generate regenerative travel – travel that actually improves an area for nature and the local population. We have an opportunity to make our favorite places in the world even better for future generations.
Tourism leakage is when the money generated by tourism actually leaves the country, with little benefit to the local communities. The infrastructure of tourism – roads, airports, etc. – are maintained by the local economy which in some cases may only get 10-20% of the tourism revenue. For more information read What Is Economic Tourism Leakage? How to Prevent Its Negative Impact
It’s gratifying that many destinations, and businesses, have committed to sustainability, but it is essential that we, as tourists, do our part by being responsible travelers. By making simple changes in how we plan our trips, what we pack, and how we engage with the local communities, we can have a huge impact in protecting what we love.
Please share your eco-friendly travel tips in the comments. But also share with your friends and family. Spread the word on how easy and rewarding it can be to travel sustainably.